Documenting the American South Logo
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Cary J. Allen Jr., April 3, 1980. Interview H-0001. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Decision to establish local union for aluminum workers in Badin, North Carolina

Allen describes the decision of local workers for the Alcoa aluminum plant in Badin, North Carolina to establish a local union with ties to the Aluminum Workers of America. In 1936, when Allen helped to organize this union, the only organized labor in the community was part of the American Federation of Labor. Allen believed that the AFL was ineffectual at the time and instead sought to establish a union with strong local autonomy and collective bargaining power.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Cary J. Allen Jr., April 3, 1980. Interview H-0001. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

You had come down to work at Badin, and the wages were not satisfactory to you.
They were thirty-six cents an hour, and we figured that was pretty low. In 1936 the Depression was gradually getting over with. Very few cars in the parking lot; few people could afford cars then. So we decided to investigate the possibility of a union and found that they had an A F of L union in town. But it was very ineffectual; it didn't have but about seven members. So we decided we could do something about it. That process started, and over the long haul we managed to build what we have today, get pensions and our medical care and all the fringe benefits that we have today. But it was a long process, a little bit at a time.
What did you find AF of L union was like in '36 when you first investigated it?
Like I say, it only had seven members, and it was very ineffectual. It didn't speak for the people in the plant. Then we had an invitation to come to New Kensington, that they were going to go over the Steel Workers Organizing Committee of the CIO, which was the Committee for Industrial Organization-they called it a Congress of Industrial Organization later-under Philip Murray. So we got up to Pittsburgh-New Kensington is just outside of Pittsburgh, and met the head of the AF of L and asked him if we organized a. . . . Did something with the AF of L in Badin, what would be the end result? He said, "Well, the machinists' mates will have to go to Salisbury," where they had railroad shops, see, "and the electricians'll probably have to attend meetings in Charlotte." And we told him that that would completely undo all we had done to unify the plant as one bargaining force. [Interruption]
Our local union picked three of us to see what New Kensington intended to do, so we borrowed Dean's car, three of us, and went and drove the thing there, and it broke down in the middle of the night. We set there all night in West Virginia with it pretty cold. I didn't know how cold; I knew I froze. I knocked on a guy's door to ask for a drink of water. I went out to get the dipper out of the bucket, and the bucket and all came up, because there was ice all over the place. [Laughter] But we finally got there and met with the head of the Aluminum Council, a fellow Worth Williams [unclear] , and he was nice to us. Told us not to go over there; they were a gang of communists over there in New Kensington, to stay with the AF of L. But we were permitted to go over to New Kensington with this provision: that we were fraternal delegates and had no right to vote on anything that they brought up over there. But they insisted that we vote right on, although we weren't authorized to. And wrote up a constitution, elected a head of the Aluminum Workers of America, which was an international. They intended later on to take in Canada, and they got the thing set up. One thing that I was primarily interested in in setting up an international was the autonomy of the local unions. We didn't want to submerge all our activities under the restrictive head of the international. [Laughter] We wanted to keep as much local autonomy as possible. And that was my objective all the way through, writing the constitution, to give every local the right to run pretty much as it wanted to, and I think we did a good job on the constitution. Then we came back, and though the union was small-at the time, we hadn't made much progress in signing up members-we had to sell the idea of switching over to the local union, and it wasn't too much trouble. Because they could see the advantages of being in one bargaining unit; whereas when the union was divided up into activities, then the company could play the machinists off against the electricians and so on, and . So we agreed to switch over to the CIO.